What Would a Universal Basic Income Look Like

April 19, 2021

42, as every HG2G fan knows, is the answer to life, the universe and everything. It’s also the title of a crowdfunded book including Douglas Adams’s notes on work, life and technology. His memo-to-self shows that even a writer with his confidence and fluency struggled. “Writing isn’t so bad, really…” he wrote, and “…attack it, don’t let it attack you”

I’m sure Douglas Adams will have experienced a thrill of achievement when he finished the four books in the trilogy. But that got me thinking about the link between work and motivation.

There’s obviously the extrinsic motivation of work: the need to pay the bills and, if your job pays enough, to build up some savings for a rainy day. Then there’s the intrinsic motivation of work – the enjoyment we get from it, whether camaraderie, sense of social contribution, or the achievement of a job well done.

There was a great academic study funded by the US Federal Reserve Bank, examining the link between money and motivation. They were surprised by their results. If the task was a basic mechanical job – shovelling dirt into the back of a wagon, say – then paying a bonus improves performance. But a task that involves even rudimentary cognitive skill – planning or creativity – a larger bonus reward leads to poorer performance.

Other studies have shown that autonomy and trust – trust in us as employees, and trust between employees – are much, much stronger motivators than money. In fact, the best use of money as a motivator, is to pay people enough to take the question of money off the table. When people know they are financially secure, they work better.

​Which, by the way, blows the argument for £multi-million bonuses out of the water. Serco is the latest example, the firm awarded the privatised test and trace contract. Despite the National Audit Office report that there was “no evidence the £22bn programme had reduced rates of Covid-19 in England”, Rupert Soames, brother of a Tory MP and CEO of Serco, will get a £4.9 million payout this year. Clearly no correlation between social value and personal reward there.

What of the dignity of labour? Most of us instinctively feel there’s a link between work and a sense of self-esteem that goes beyond money. In a report called, intriguingly, ‘The Employment Dosage’, researchers at Cambridge University answered the question: ‘How Much Work is Needed for Health and Wellbeing?’ The study lasted nine years and involved 71,000 people. The result is surprising. One day a week. One day a week gives us all the social and psychological benefits of working 5 days or more.

The automation is already available to enable us to work a 3 to 4 day week. The challenge is not productivity, but the distribution of wealth. I‘d wager that most people would work fewer hours if they had enough money to pay their bills and support their families. But how much would that be? Would a Universal Basic Income be the answer? How would we set the level of UBI?

In 1930, the eminent economist John Maynard Keynes wrote an essay called Economic Possibilities for Our Grandchildren. He suggested that, within a century, an enormous growth in productivity and resultant increase in living standards would mean that people could choose to work only 15 hours a week. In terms of basic productive output, he was right.

We should be thinking about which jobs really need to be done. It’s difficult, though – how many people would be happy to say their job wasn’t necessary? A YouGov survey found that 37% of Brits thought their job did not contribute ‘meaningfully’ to the world. So, 1 in 3 people feel if their job was not done, the world would be no worse off.

Which takes us back to Douglas Adams. His Golgafrinchans divided their society into three: the thinkers, the doers, and the “middlemen” – who did pointless jobs. They sent the useless third off to a distant planet (Earth), keeping only the useful people back on Golgafrincham. Sadly, they were wiped out by a raging virulent disease, caught from dirty telephones. And Earth ended up with the telephone sanitisers, middle managers and tired TV producers.

Originally Published in the Journal and Evening Chronicle 19.4.21